Analysis & Profiles 10.6.2016 08:10 am

Tech takes us closer to immortality

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California where the company unveiled two new iPhones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus and the Apple Watch

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California where the company unveiled two new iPhones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus and the Apple Watch

But do you really want to live forever?

I was among a group of people who pay so much attention to the length and causes of human mortality that I sensed that soon humans might begin to grasp immortality. And not in the abstract sense of the word. No, I mean the literal sense of the word, the physical ability – barring certain types of disease that for the near future will remain incurable –  to live for almost as long as we choose.

This perspective was provided by the presentation of a pension fund manager at the Actuarial Society of South Africa’s Investment Seminar held in Johannesburg on Wednesday. Which is rather unsurprising because really good pension fund managers – like Antony Barker who gave the presentation and who oversees Santander Bank’s multi-billion pound pension fund – can extricate their concentration and focus from the day-to-day distractions that scream for their immediate attention, and really begin to think about how the world is changing in the long-term. Of course, they are paid to do this – the pension fund Barker manages has cash flow obligations to its members arising in sixty years’ time.

So it began with the horse. And a picture of New York in 1900 – spot the car. Just fifty years later, and it was a case of spot the horse. “The horse was the world’s first stranded asset,” Barker declared, “In 1900, everyone wanted one. By 1950, no-one did.”

He believes certain commodities are heading in the same direction: “If we could get the geopolitical consensus to build a solar farm in the Sahara desert – which could power the entire world – it would probably be the end of oil and coal.”

His work identifying some of the megatrends of the future is fascinating. Over a few sessions at Google’s artificial intelligence unit in California he came away with the distinct impression that Google could well be a health services company in the next five years.

While we are nearing the advent of driverless cars, is it now not too much of a skip to consider we may well have humanless doctors (read: general practitioners) in the next ten years. An article in the British Medical Journal suggests this may not be such a bad thing:

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The intersection of wearable devices capable of giving information in real time to algorithms aided by artificial intelligence, means that computers will be able to systematically eliminate thousands of potential (mis)diagnoses to get to the most likely case. Something which can be done systematically and much quicker than any human is capable of (as Google and others have demonstrated with the speed in which artificial intelligence can learn to play games as complex as Chess and Othello).

We have already seen the development of early detection systems that can prevent heart attacks linked to smartphones and the Apple watch. For instance, AliveCor has already developed an app that can perform a medical grade EKG using a custom-designed iPhone case (For R250) that sends data to an app on your smartphone. Approval is pending for the Apple Watch strap that will be able to do the same thing, allowing people experiencing palpitations to perform an EKG anywhere at any time.

Watch the video here:

We won’t even delve into developments in the stem cell arena – suffice to say that the technology already exists to correct certain shortcomings should the need arise (as anyone who has recently had a child will know).

My take-away from the presentation is this: Longevity has been rising across the developed world for decades, but looks set for a quantum leap. I wonder though,  have we made up our minds as to how long we really want to live?

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